Point-zone defense picks apart offenses By Creighton Burns, contributing writer

The point-zone defense is a simple way to match up against an opponent while using zone responsibilities, which many times confuse the opponent. The defense offers the same advantages as a match-up zone, but it takes less time to teach. It’s also easier to learn.

The point-zone is a favorite of Dean Smith, the Hall of Fame University of North Carolina coach. Years ago, Smith spoke of this defense at a clinic and said he could teach it in five minutes. Sure enough, he did.

point zone defense diagrams 1-3If you watch any of Smith’s proteges, they run the point-zone defense. Coaches like Bill Gutheridge, Eddie Fogler, Roy Williams and Matt Doherty have all used it with success.

While the defense is easy to teach, outsiders sometimes have no idea what kind of defense you’re playing. For instance, when a team runs a point-zone defense you might hear the broadcaster refer to it as a 2-3 zone. The next time down the floor, the broadcaster might call it a 1-3-1. In reality, the team is playing the same point-zone defense. If it confuses big-time broadcasters, it’s sure to cause confusion for teams trying to attack it.

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On every possession, have players start in a basic 2-3 zone look. Then, move into the point-zone defense on the first pass to either wing. If the offense attacks with a two-guard front, the defense stays in a straight 2-3 zone.

For your players to understand the spacing and positioning of the point-zone, have them follow Diagrams 1-3. This helps them understand who their partner is and how to move with that partner on the initial wing pass.

Set up & initial pass

For the initial set up of the point-zone defense, put your players in a formation as shown in Diagram 1.

DIAGRAM 1: 1 and 4 are partners, and 2 and 3 are partners. Partners always are in a straight line.

In this example, 1 is “pointing” (guarding) the ball, so 4 is in a straight line behind 1. 2 and 3 aren’t pointing the ball, so they are in a straight line horizontally. The straight lines between the two sets of partners form an “X” on the court.

point zone defense diagrams 4-6DIAGRAM 2: With the ball on the wing, X2 is pointing the ball. X3 is in a straight line behind X2 between the ball and the basket. 1 sags into the middle to keep the ball out of the high post. X4 follows X1’s lead by shifting into position to again form an “X” between the imaginary straight lines between partners.

DIAGRAM 3: When X3 points the ball, X2 stays on a straight line between the ball and the basket. X2 is responsible for the back-side rebound.

Center’s rules & switching

Once players 1-4 know their initial roles, add X5 into the mix. X5 has four rules to follow:

  • Stay on a straight line between the ball and the basket.
  • Keep the ball out of the middle.
  • Front the low post.
  • If the post player steps out on the perimeter, step out and play him man-to-man.

DIAGRAM 4: 5 must stay in a straight line between the ball and the basket, no matter which offensive player has the ball.

Now that all five players understand their initial responsibilities, it’s time to dive deeper into the point-zone defense. The offense doesn’t always move from the top of the key to the wing via the pass. Sometimes, the offensive player dribbles to the wing. This causes your defensive player on the wing from where the dribble is coming to call out a switch. They must keep in mind the straight-line rules and spacing.

DIAGRAM 5: The dribble comes toward X2. X2 calls out the switch with X1. Every player then rotates to be “three in line” — in line with the ball, basket and partner.

point zone defense diagrams 7-8DIAGRAM 6: When the switch has taken place, X2 is pointing the ball and X3 is in a straight line with X2. X1 and X4 are in a straight line with each other. X5 is in a straight line between the ball and the rim.

Vs. two-guard front

Against a two-guard front, the point-zone defense starts in a 2-3 zone look. The following two diagrams show the rotation and alignments of players based on where the ball-handler is located.

DIAGRAM 7: With the ball starting on the left-side of the court, X1 points the ball. X1’s partner, X4, rotates into the middle of the lane to get in alignment. X2 retreats back slightly to just below the foul-line extended. X3, his partner, moves up from the low post to create the line with X2.

If the players execute the defense properly, it looks like a 2-3 zone. On passes to the wings, it looks like a 1-3-1 zone.

DIAGRAM 8: If the ball is on X2’s side, X2 points the ball and everyone else moves into their alignments. This diagram shows the alignment after the shift has taken place.

point zone defense diagrams 9-12Point zone vs. one-guard front

Against a one-guard front, the defense begins in a 2-3 zone. When the pass is made to the wing, players shift into alignment keeping their spacing in mind.

DIAGRAM 9: The initial pass goes to the right wing, where X2 points the ball. X3 moves to the middle of the lane. X1 shifts to the foul line. X5 moves into position between the ball, the point defender and the basket.

DIAGRAM 10: Unless he’s pointing the ball, 1 typically stays at the top of the defense to keep those imaginary lines straight and in an “X” form. So, if the initial pass goes to the far-left wing, X3 points the ball. X2 moves to the weak-side post in line with X3.

X2 must remember to cover down and cover the back-side block on passes to the opposite wing. X1 sags to the foul-line extended, and X4 crosses the lane to the strong-side post.

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DIAGRAM 11: On the pass to the corner, X4 slides out and points the ball. If the play started on the opposite side and ended up in that corner, X4 has that corner responsibility as well, so X4 must be an athlete.

On passes to the corner, X3 can plug the gut of the offense, play the passing lane or follow the ball down and trap with X4. X1 shifts to the ball side, just below the elbow of the key. X5 shifts down to be between the ball, the point defender and the basket.

DIAGRAM 12: If the pass went back out to the point instead of the corner from the wing, X1 points the ball. X4 gets in line with his partner. X5 moves in line with the ball and the basket between X1 and X4. X2 and X3 fill the wings.

Defending the skip pass

When the ball is on the wing, the offense sometimes tries to send a skip pass across the court to beat the defense. This easily is defended by once again utilizing proper positioning, shifting and spacing.

point zone defense diagrams 13-16DIAGRAM 13: On a skip pass from wing to wing, the pass is covered by the partner of the defender on the ball. In this instance, X2 is on the ball. When the ball is skipped to the opposite side, X3 is assigned defense on the ball. X4 slides across the lane into position on the ball-side of the court. X1 remains at the top of the key.

X5 shifts across the lane, always maintaining position between the ball and the basket. X2 moves down to the now weak-side post position to stay in line with X3. X2 now is responsible for weak-side rebounding.

DIAGRAM 14: When the offense throws a skip pass from the baseline corner to the opposite wing, X4’s responsibilities change. Under all other circumstances, X4 covers baseline corner to baseline corner. However, on a skip pass from the baseline corner to the opposite wing, it’s physically impossible for X4 to cover both corners. So, in only this circumstance, X4 has new responsibilities as outlined in Diagram 14 and 15.

When the skip pass occurs, X1 points the ball. X4 moves from the corner to the now weak-side post. X2 moves to the foul line. X3 is in charge of the ball-side corner and pops out from the lane. X5 clogs the middle between the ball and basket.

DIAGRAM 15: On a skip pass from the wing to the back-side corner, X3 covers the pass and is the point person on the new ball-handler. X1 moves from the top of the key to the ball-side elbow area. X2 shifts to the foul line.

X5 moves to the ball-side low post between the ball and the basket. The defense now is set up to play like a 2-3 zone.

Defending the dribble

If the ball is dribbled from the wing to the corner, the wing and baseline runner can trap the ball.

DIAGRAM 16: When the ball is dribbled to the corner, X4 points the ball and X2 slides down to trap. X1 moves to the ball-side wing to cover the passing lane from the corner. X3 comes up to the ball-side high post.


Creighton Burns coached NCAA Division I, Division II, NAIA, NJCAA and high school boys and girls basketball. This article was originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of Winning Hoops.





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